A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen

As far as we know, only human beings have a sense of humour – although chimps might laugh when tickled, and dogs respond similarly in play, Seth McFarlane’s fan-base is comprised exclusively of humans. Whilst animals and robots might feature as prominent characters in our favourite comic movies, shows and stand-up routines, we have no reason to suspect that their real-life brethren get the joke.

Drawing on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Shaun May attempts to address this issue – suggesting that there is something distinctive about human beings which grounds our ability to make and comprehend jokes. Guiding the reader through a range of examples, including the films of Charlie Chaplin, the stand-up of Francesca Martinez, the TV show Family Guy and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, he demonstrates that in order to get the joke you have to ‘be there’.


Review of A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen 

By Jonathan Venn, Studies in Theatre and Performance (link)

In this sustained philosophical account, Shaun May attempts to unearth the hermeneutic conditions of comedy. In his own terms, May attempts to ask, ‘what makes us, human beings, the kind of creatures that can make and comprehend jokes’ (3). More specifically, May’s work directly and continually engages with the work and thought of Martin Heidegger.

The book is divided into two broad sections. In the opening part, May clearly outlines the mode of his analysis and the justification for his methodology. May, rather than attempting to make a socio-political critical commentary about the function of comedy, is interested in comic intelligibility itself. May attempts to distinguish between a theory of humour and a phenom- enology of humour. He argues a theoretical approach to humour involves treating humour as information that can be isolated and analysed; May claims that ‘this is deeply problematic because in deworlding the joke, you lose the very thing that makes it intelligible in the first place – the referential context’ (25). Instead, May establishes the necessity of a descriptive phenomenology that doesn’t attempt to critically isolate humour from its surroundings, but rather ‘keeps the humour in its native context, using case studies to frame and focus the inquiry’ (25). In order to perform this phenomenology and draw out these conditions of the comedic, May draws heavily upon Heideggerian thought; he is clear in his reasoning for using Heideggerian phenomenology, and the particular interpretation of Heidegger he puts into operation. May’s explanations for his methodology are consistently clear and well argued; he positions himself within and against a wider scholarship of comedy. For those unfamiliar with Heidegger’s work, his explanations are lucid and careful, preparing us for the deeper work across the later parts of the book.

Having established his methodology and philosophical justifications, May uses the second section to practise the phenomenological analysis of comedy. Across the four chapters, he performs four different phenomenological understandings of comedy: looking at dysfunctional objects, anthropic objects (anthropic denotes Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, as an active being- in-the-world), anthropic animals and physical impairment. His use of the various comedic examples are not meant to be simply illustrative of a philosophical concept, ‘but rather a clearer expression of the fundamental structures surrounding comic intelligibility that are not usually so noticeable’ (10).

May’s explanation and application of Heidegger’s thought is intellectually adroit. is is particularly evident in his chapters concerning dysfunctional and anthropic objects. His application of Heideggerian thought to various examples of object-based comedy is unforced. As a result, his argument appears to unveil the hermeneutic conditions behind the various comedic examples, rather than simply forcing a Heideggerian perspective. In particular, his use of Chaplin’s films works well to illuminate the varying different forms of object dysfunction. Likewise, his exploration of puppetry in the context of ‘anthropic objects’ couples an in-depth philosophical knowledge with a keen awareness of the theatrical practice.

Whilst May possesses a commensurate command of Heidegger’s terms and ideas, there are points where an engagement with wider critical thought could have been illuminating. For instance, his chapter concerning the anthropic animal relies upon Heidegger’s notion of the animal as world-poor, as alive but not existing. Consideration of accusations of anthropocentrism in Heidegger’s work, or reference to Jacques Derrida’s work on this matter, or animal studies as a whole, may have proven elucidating. In his chapter on the ‘impaired body’, May suggests that ‘physical impairment has the potential to induce an existential anxiety’ (147). May touches upon the social model of disability, and uses the distinction between disability (as social-political construction) and impairment (as physical lack or failure). However, a deeper conversation with the debates within disability studies concerning the difficulties of this distinction, alongside a wider discussion of the heterogeneity of physical impairment, would have been welcome.

May’s choice of comedic material shi s between the historical and the contemporary, from Chaplin and Beckett to Family Guy and Francesca Martinez. His choices are illuminating and well-chosen, though it would have been interesting to see the application of Heideggerian thought in more non-Western contexts. His ability to shi between media and contexts re ects both intellectual pliability and a con dence in the wider applicability of his argument. For those who would want a clearer distinction between the manifestations of lm and theatre, May care- fully frames his project to be concerned with the concept of ‘humour’ as a whole rather than a consideration of the speci cities of either art form. As a result, May’s work will be of special interest to scholars of Heidegger and philosophers of comedy, though perhaps less so in the context of theatre or performance studies.

May explains Heidegger’s thought with neither obfuscation nor simplification. A lack of engagement with the wider context of Heidegger, his biographical controversies and philosophical critiques, may prevent it from being a comprehensive entry point into Heidegger’s position as a thinker and philosopher. However, this book offers a good initiation for those wishing to understand the underlying precepts of Heidegger’s thought in their own terms. In particular, the ease of language coupled with an accessible use of comedy might endear the work to undergraduate and postgraduate study. Overall, this is an interesting work providing a thorough phenomenological analysis of comedy across stage and screen that offers an excellent introduction into the philosophy of Heidegger.